For starters, I will tell you that sexual abuse is hard to diagnose in children while it is happening because fully 25 to 35 percent of victimized children show no symptoms of the abuse. However, two-thirds do develop symptoms, which may range from anxiety, dissociation, depression, sexualized behaviors, bedwetting or expressions of anger to a general decline in social, academic, and overall functioning. Studies of children who have been sexually abused indicate that 60 to 70 percent develop a psychiatric disorder – most commonly PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but also various behavior, anxiety, depressive and dissociative disorders.
Dissociative disorders may include avoiding people, numbness, daydreaming, obsessive fantasizing, depersonalization (objectifying oneself to others), and such somatic complaints as fainting and feelings of physical helplessness.
PTSD from sexual abuse leads to high anxiety. The victim often relives the experience in flashbacks and sometimes reenacts the trauma through sexual acting out. These children often battle depression. Sometimes this depression can become suicidal; the child’s core identity is so fundamentally disturbed that he or she feels hurt beyond repair. Such children also become enraged and quick to act out with other people, whether adults or friends and classmates their age.
Children who are sexually abused may also act out sexually in highly inappropriate ways with other adults they meet. They often have confused ideas about sexuality, closeness and intimacy.
Not every child experiences these severe reactions; it depends on the nature of the abuse the temperament and age of the child. However, clearly some very serious psychic consequences can develop from sexual abuse, and parents need to take seriously any indications that it may be occurring now or has occurred in the past.
If you as a parent suspect that your child has been sexually abused and your child has, in fact, disclosed this, you should listen and be understanding. Reassure your child that he or she should not feel guilty and that they did the right thing by disclosing the abuse. Children should not be blamed for being victims of sexual abuse even though we are anxious and often angry at the time of disclosure. Parents have to offer protection.
Parents should report any suspicion of child abuse to Child Protective Services if it happens inside the family, or to the police or the district attorney’s office if it occurs outside the family.
Information contained in this blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended as medical or psychiatric advice for individual conditions or treatment and does not substitute for a medical or psychiatric examination. A psychiatrist must make a determination about any treatment or prescription. Dr. Paul does not assume any responsibility or risk for the use of any information contained within this blog.